Value for Money 72%
Reasonable prices, fast lifts, and some scintillating, top-to-bottom pistes make the Skiwelt a canny choice for intermediates – provided they ski it in the middle of winter. Pretty villages and forested, Sound-of-Music landscapes add to the allure.
Gabriel Eder is an enthusiastic winter sportsman who grew up in the Tirol, and broadened his skiing experience in Argentina and Australia. For more than ten years he’s been involved in the tourism business for the Skiwelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental and is responsible for the village of Söll – home to the best nightlife in the Skiwelt.
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The Skiwelt is an alliance of six lift companies an hour’s drive from Innsbruck – and together they offer a 284km network of interconnected pistes. That’s big by any standard, and one of its distinguishing characteristics is the profusion of blue and red-rated runs.
Here, kilometre after kilometre of wide, rolling groomers unfurl across a Sound-of-Music landscape of forests and pastures, dotted with hay barns and mountain huts. They’re backed by a state-of-the-art snowmaking system (capable of covering 120km of pistes in snow in just three days), groomed by a fleet of 65 piste-bashers, and served by one of the fastest lift systems in the Alps. Although there are a few black pistes dotted around the slopes, this is essentially a private, high-tech playground for intermediate-level skiers.
It’s also a powerful antidote to the big, high-altitude ski areas of France. The villages are pretty and low-rise, the prices are reasonable, and the atmosphere less frenetic. Yes, the low altitude of the ski area (which tops out a 1829m) is a problem in mild Decembers, or during a warm spring. But if they catch it in mid to late-January or early February, when the cover is usually cold and soft, many mid-level skiers will wonder why they ever skied anywhere else.
A Short Guide to the Skiing in the Skiwelt
The skiing is focused on a central ridge of gentle, mostly flat-topped peaks and a couple of outlying massifs. There are lots of access points. The villages of Going, Ellmau, Scheffau, Soll, Hopfgarten, Brixen and Westendorf are the main ones, and as a result early-morning lift queues are rare. Meanwhile, a modern lift system keeps the skiers moving right across the area. One of the most recent additions is Zinzberg eight-seater which travels at six metres a second and is amongst the fastest chairlifts in the world.
The pistes fall into two broad categories – short and broad, and long and sinuous. Both types are fast and fun, but the really memorable runs are the top-to-bottom descents from the 1820m Choralpe, down to Brixental, and the from the top of the Hohe Salve (at 1829m the highest point in the ski area) to Hopfgarten. In the right conditions, the former – the “Kandler”, marked 11 on the piste map – is world-class. It drops through a muscle-melting 1026 vertical metres, and follows the fall-line for well over half its length, dropping straight down the north face of the mountain. Most of the way it’s a steepish red, but there’s a short black section in the middle (which is easily avoided). It deserves a place on every keen skier’s bucket list.
There are several other characteristics to bear in mind.
1. The trees on either side of the pistes are a boon on days of flat light: because the lowlights they cast across the snow make it easier to see what the skiing surface is like.
2. This isn’t an area for off-pisters. The downside of all those trees is the fact that there’s very little off-piste on offer across the ski area. So don’t come here expecting lots of St Anton-style freeriding.
3. Westendorf is the place for freestylers.
Westedorf is one of the cutest, and quietest, of the Skiwelt villages: but for 20 years it’s also been the home of the area’s best snowparks. To celebrate, it’s opening a new Mini Playground on the Westendorf ski field in the valley, which incorporates a mini-cross line with steep curves and waves. Meanwhile, the BIG Playground on the Gampenkogel also has a new super-cross line aimed at all abilities. There are other parks in Soll and Ellmau
4. Look out for fun “extras” the mountain. The resort’s well-provided with timed slalom courses – and you’re filmed as you ski on some of them, for example above Scheffau. There are also two straight-down-the-mountain speed-measurement courses (the slopes aren’t steep), and three places for floodlit night skiing – in Soll, Brixen and Westendorf.
5. And don’t lose track of time. Each of the villages has its own local bus service, free to those with a lift pass, which shuttles skiers from accommodation to slopes. In a few cases there are inter-village connections too: for example, between Ellmau and Going. But if you’re staying in, say, Soll and get stuck in Westendorf at the end of the day when the lifts close, you’ll have to buy a ticket for a bus ride home, or grab a taxi.
Where to Learn in the Skiwelt
All the main villages have at least a couple of ski schools. Westendorf is home to five, including “The Reds” – the Schischule Westendorf. Prices for a course of lessons are not uniform around the area (some schools in Soll, for example, are dearer than in Westendorf): and they tend to be a little higher than in the French Alps, because the lessons are longer. Four hours a day rather than two and a half is usual. In 2018, €190-200 was normal for 5x4hr lessons.
One recent development in the area has been the increasing flexibilty of the group-lesson format. You no longer need to commit to a whole week of lessons. At the Soll Ski School, for example 1x4hr group lesson can be had for €90. It’s a good way to iron out the wrinkles in your technique at the start of the holiday, without splashing out on private lessons (which cost €140-150 for two hours).
One of the Skiwelt’s greatest strengths is its focus on lessons for kids. Every village has a well-developed area of nursery slopes, and facilities are generally excellent. In Soll, for example, the Kiko kindergarten is set in a charming barn by the bottom station of the gondola and takes little’uns from one year and up. Meanwhile, the main area of nursery slopes is at the mid-station, so the snow isn’t so vulnerable to thaws. At Scheffau, Kinderkaiserland is at the top of the lift above the village, and is known across the northern Tirol for its ability to get young children under four comfortable on skis.
Bear in mind, however, that in several villages, the nursery slopes are at village level, which means the snow’s slushy at the end of the season. If you are planning a trip in March, you’re better off booking with a school which offers mid-mountain lessons.
Where to Stay in the Skiwelt
Soll is the largest of the four Wilder Kaiser villages set along the valley road that runs from Itter to St Johann in Tirol. Its core is set back from the main lift station (but connected by shuttle bus), and it has the Skiwelt’s liveliest nightlife.
There are nine four-star hotels here, including the central Hotel Postwirt, and the plush Hotel Alpenschlossl whose recently-refurbished wellness area, includes sauna, steam room, infrared cabin and relaxation area.
Meanwhile, the Aparthotel Bergland is conveniently located – across the road from the ski-lifts, and has some rather chic public rooms on the ground floor. “I wish we had learned of this hotel sooner” was one comment on Tripadviser, along with: “If you want excellent food, with the most helpful and friendly service this is the place to be”.
Interesting three stars include the Hotel Gansleit a five-minute walk from the village centre with a ski-bus stop outside the door. It has 30 rooms and is family-owned, with the mother and daughter team running the restaurant. Another three-star, Hotel Hexenalm is right at the bottom of the pistes. It’s perfect for anyone who fancies a jiggle in their ski boots when the the lifts shut – thanks to its daily diet of apres-ski parties and live music.
Scheffau is the next village along the valley, and it’s set back slightly from the main road. It’s much quieter than Solo. Here, the four-star Hotel Kaiser in Tirol is the place to stay, especially if you book one of the chic and recently-refurbished Kaiserooms – or if you have children. The hotel runs an excellent kids’ club, and has a big indoor swimming pool.
Next stop is Ellmau: a lively (but not raucous) village that’s popular with families. Its four-stars include the Sporthotel Ellmau on the high street, which has a large spa area and modern, rather chic rooms; the light, bright Hotel Christoph near the gondola, where all drinks are free with dinner; and the family-run four-star Hotel Kaiserblick which is handy for the ski school and has a big indoor-outdoor pool.
But if you’re looking for a really distinctive hotel experiece, look just beyond the little village of Going to the famous Biohotel Stanglwirt, which has a collection of Lippizaner horses you can watch performing through a glass window in the reception area. The bedrooms are lovely, there’s an indoor swimming-pool, and an in-house ski school.
For more accommodation options in the Wilder Kaiser villages check out the local accommodation guide.
On the other side of the Skiwelt, Westendorf is a another good base – set away from the main road through the Brixental. Two of its hotels are classic Austrian four stars: offering spacious rooms, and attracting a loyal clientele. As is the case throughout the Skiwelt, rooms are generally cheaper here than in the high-altitude resorts of France.
The Vital Hotel Schermer is closer to the lifts and pistes: about a five-minute walk in your ski boots. Book a valley-facing ‘Brixental’ room if you can. Welove2ski stayed in one recently: they’re enormous by Alpine standards and there’s no luxury greater when you’re unpacking a suitcase loaded with ski boots, gloves and goggles than space. There’s also a large spa/pool area downstairs. .
The other four-star to put on the short list is the Glockenstuhl. It’s just outside the centre of the village – so leave your ski boots each night in one of the rental shops when your skiing’s done, and walk back to the hotel in a pair of trainers instead. It gets rave reviews for the quality of its cooking and spa facilities.
Check out kitzbuehleralpen.com for more accommodation options in Westendorf.
Where to Eat
One of glories of the Skiwelt is its mountain-restaurant scene. There are a staggering 77 restaurants on the slopes. Not only are many of them family-run and brimming with Tirolean character, they’re reasonably-priced too. One of the best is the Sonnalm – just above the gondola mid-station in Westendorf – which serves up a giant pan of local bubble-and-squeak (aka Tiroler Grostl), by the light of a roaring fire for just €8.60. In some resorts in France you’ll pay nearly as much for a plate of unadorned chips. Also above Westendorf, the Maierhof, specialises in good value local fare.
Meanwhile, across the valley, the Jausenstation Frankalm (+43 660 3478778) is one of the prettiest mountain huts in the Alps, let alone the Skiwelt. The food will never win awards, but the creaking timbers and old-world atmosphere deserve 18/20 points in the Gault Millau guide. As at the Sonnalm, lunch will only set you back a few Euros. Go early or late to be sure of getting a seat.
Other mountain restaurants to put on your hitlist include the pretty Tansbodenalm at the top of the Scheffau gondola. It’s always worth clicking out of your bindings if you’re in the area to check the daily specials here. A giant plate of goulash is about €11. Lasagne is €8.90. The Gasthof Grundalm and Gipfelrestaurant Hohe Salve, are also good spots for lunch.
Down in the valleys, the restaurant scene is more subdued
Lots of skiers have paid for half-board packages in their hotels, so they eat in. As a result, you won’t find the villages brimming with independent restaurants – although many have at least one good Italian for that evening when only pizza will do. In Soll, Giovanni is the place to go (pizzas from €7.50). In Going, try Pizzeria Primavera, in Scheffau the the Pizzeria in Hotel Alpin, and Pizzeria Sterndl in Ellmau.
Fancy something more Austrian? Head to the Dorfstub’n in Soll and the Gasthof Weberbauer in Scheffau. Also recommended is the Weinatelier Agnes, which offer superb homemade ravioli with spinach, ricotta and walnut pesto – and tray of three to four ‘tasting’ glasses of wine.
For a propert blowout your two best options on the Wilder Kaiserhof side of the Skiwelt are the Biohotel Stanglwirt, or Günter Lampert’s restaurant in the Kaiserhof at Ellmau. Lampert has two toques and 15/20 points from the Gault Millau guide.
Meanwhile, Welove2ski’s restaurant in Westendorf is the Reiterstuberl, a lovely little place with a cosy interior. The food is delicious, quite different from the mountain fare you’ll usually find in the area, and the owner and staff are welcoming and friendly. That said, real gastronomes will simply be biding their time before a visit to the Kirchberg, a little further up the valley, to dine at Simon Taxacher’s Rosengarten, which has two Michelin stars, as well as four toques and 19/20 points from Gault Millau.
Apres-Ski in the Skiwelt
Soll is no longer the wigged-out party capital of the Austrian Alps it was back in the 1980s – much to the locals’ relief. Nevertheless, it still has a friendly, fun-loving atmosphere as the lifts close. The apres-ski starts by the gondola station at the Hexenalm and the Moonlight Bar, before moving into the Pub Salfenstadl and the Red Horse Sports Bar at the entrance to the village.